A Therapist Speaks: On Coping With Feeling Anxious, Sad, Helpless, or Hopeless About Ukraine

For many, what we’re seeing is shaking our sense of order.

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Passengers depart the railway station after disembarking trains from the east on March 11, 2022 in Lviv, Ukraine. More than two million people have fled Ukraine following Russia's large-scale assault on the country, with hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian
Passengers depart the railway station after disembarking trains from the east on March 11, 2022, in Lviv, Ukraine.Yuriy Dyachyshyn/AFP/Getty Images

The last two years have been stressful to say the least. But the world is still turning after a health crisis that globally shook daily life in previously unthinkable ways. In many places, masks are coming off. Travel restrictions have loosened. As another long COVID winter started to end, there seemed to be light (maybe distant light, but still light) at the end of the anxiety-ridden tunnel. My clients seemed to be breathing just a little bit easier.

Then, on February 24, Russia invaded Ukraine — and for many, feelings of uncertainty and unease came rushing back.

If since the start of the war in Ukraine you have been feeling an uptick in worry, sadness, anger, hopelessness, or any combination of these feelings, you are not alone. Yes, we expect major world events to affect us, but this event has been especially impactful for people all over the world.

To start, we like things to make sense. We grow up learning that doing “bad” things come with punishment and doing “good” things comes with praise; good things happen to “good” people and bad things happen to “bad” people.

Many of us eventually learn that the world does not quite work this way. That realization can be shattering, particularly when the senselessness is profound. (For some people, it’s this feeling of disorder that’s thought to contribute to PTSD symptoms.)

I also see people struggling to wrap their minds around the concept that one country can just violently walk into another country and try to take it over, even considering the preexisting tensions and conflict between Russia and Ukraine. This type of lawlessness feels unjust. It’s left people feeling like anything can happen and we have no control, which feels scary.

But it’s not only political and diplomatic injustice. It’s the humanitarian crisis, too. We are hearing about and seeing photos of civilians, including children, being injured and killed. We are seeing photos of some of the millions of people displaced from their homes. We continue to hear about the failure to let people safely evacuate war-torn cities. The scope of suffering has already been massive, leaving many of us feeling as though there is nothing significant enough we can do to help. This sense of helplessness stirs up feelings of hopelessness and guilt.

What’s happening in Ukraine would be difficult to stomach any time. But coming off two years of the disruption of a global pandemic means many of us were already feeling fatigued from the emotional, physical, and financial challenges of the pandemic. Things have quickly become even more stressful and expensive. We are hearing talk of nuclear threats and seeing gas and grocery prices soar, with no clear sense of how this conflict will be resolved or ultimately impact the world. This level of uncertainty is deeply challenging to cope with.

3 Tips for Taking Care of You Right Now

So, what can you do to not let these unsettling feelings become overwhelming?

1. Let Yourself Feel

It is important for us to realize when we are feeling bad because a situation is bad. It’s natural and expected that you might feel sad or angry about people losing their lives and their homes. This means you are feeling empathy for others, which is a healthy human response.

Often the best way to cope with these feelings is to feel them.

This means if a wave of sadness or worry comes to you, don’t try to get yourself to “just move on.” Instead, pause. Ask yourself: What are you feeling, both emotionally and physically? This may include a quick head-to-toe body scan. Try using words to identify and name these feelings, like “I’m feeling sad, and I have a pit in my stomach.” Try your best to just witness these feelings rather than talking yourself out of them or trying to change them.

This won’t make the feelings instantly go away, but by not resisting our negative feelings, we can move on from them and make room for other positive feelings that come up. Ignore them, and those negative feelings build up and become more distressing. I try to help people remember this with the rhyme: “Whatever you resist, will persist; whatever you feel, will heal.”

2. Be Mindful of Media

It’s important to stay informed, but many people’s level of media consumption goes way beyond that level. For many of us, media consumption might mean listening to TV or radio coverage, reading news articles, and seeing more headlines scrolling on social media. Some of us are doing this multiple times a day or all day long, retriggering feelings of stress, anxiety, and hopelessness even if we’re not actually learning any new information. This can put us on edge, and also prevent us?from being present in other daily activities, like connecting with family and friends.

I recommend being mindful about media. Pick the form of media you want to consume. Check in with yourself when consuming news to determine which form helps you feel informed, but not overwhelmed. For example, some people find reading news less anxiety-provoking than watching it.

Also, be specific with yourself about what times of the day and how long you want to spend watching or reading news, then make sure to stick with those news consumption guidelines you set for yourself. It may be helpful to pick times of the day to leave the TV off and the phone in another room. And make sure that media-free time includes downtime too, so that you are giving yourself adequate time to relax and reset.

3. Take Action Where Possible

Taking control and taking action (in the ways that are available to you) can help you cope with tough feelings.

One way to do this is to set small daily goals and follow through. This may include setting goals at work or setting personal goals (like to exercise or to connect with a friend every day). Even if these goals are unrelated to the current conflict, asserting the control we do have in our daily lives helps soothe anxiety.

Another way is to address worry productively. For example, if you are stressing about the increase in prices, consider checking in with and adjusting your budget. If you are stressing over the current humanitarian needs, think of practical ways you can help considering your own budget and capabilities.

It is normal to feel small and helpless in situations like the set of world events we’re currently living through. But if you think of the collective good we can do when taking control individually, it may seem a little less bleak.

Important: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not Everyday Health.